In the two decades since The New York Times implemented their “hard” paywall strategy, the digital age has proven that making money out of news has become increasingly difficult.
The success rate of the paywall strategy varies. As noted in the February 2016 article in The Conversation, some major newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post have established successful paywall models. However, according the article, regional and local newspapers have very little chance of utilizing the paywall strategy successfully due to their limited readership. Regardless, most newspapers overall are still struggling not only with which type of paywall works best, but whether the paywall strategy results in consistent and strong enough success at all.
All that being said, there are many that believe that there is enough evidence now that paywalls have the ability to bring in the revenue and readership desired to sustain the news outlets. In a 2016 article by The Innovation Enterprise, The Wall Street Journal and the U.K.’s Times are mentioned as the most successful pioneers in using the paywall strategy. Additionally, the article states that readers of the Times’ contribute to more than half of the publication’s revenue and the New York Times has now over one million digital-only subscribers. Moreover, the article asserts that Gannett’s digital subscriptions grew 37% during the third quarter of 2015. Since Gannett owns more than 90 newspapers in the U.S., these statistics offer hope for a brighter future for those outlets choosing to implement paywall strategies.
According to Rob Tornoe, in his January 2016 article for Editor & Publisher titled “Digital Publishing: For Some Publishers, Paywalls are Gaining Traction,” if readers are satisfied enough to be willing to pay for content via a subscription, those readers are a much more reliable source of income. Tornoe also asserts that readers that visit a news media site through social media links or search engines aren’t likely to pay for content, much less a monthly subscription. It will also be harder to convince younger audiences, who will be the future targeted audience for subscribers, to pay for content that they are more willing to find for free, have more time to search for and are more tech savvy equipped, than older generations of readers. In general, changing the mindset of online users who have been accustomed to accessing information at no cost may be evidence of a flaw in the way news outlets first engaged online by openly malong available all content for free.
Therefore, some digital media analysts believe that the paywall strategy works best for niche brands with exclusive content that is in demand. This is evidenced by the success of The Wall Street Journal and the failure of The Sun. The Wall Street Journal is known for its reputable reporting and knowledge of financial matters. The Sun carries general news that spans multiple categories and is known for being the U.K.’s biggest-selling tabloid. High quality or exclusive content appears to be the required trade-off for purchasing a subscription. This rationale works since readers who are looking for reliable and quality content are generally educated readers who also can afford the extra expenditure of a monthly subscription.
Critics of the paywall strategy generally cite ethical considerations regarding the issue. Some believe that paywalls go against the basic tenent that the news is intended for the people with equal access and should not be restricted to an elite few. Additionally, critics argue that paywalls inhibit the public’ ability to share and discuss thoughts in the free marketplace of ideas, a term that refers to the right to freedom of expression. Both of these philosophies are the backbone to the argument that paywalls hinder the democratic quality of what the internet, historically, has embodied.
Another ethical issue with moral implications deals with the fact that paywalls can hinder access to important civic information, such as natural disasters, impending inclement weather and other breaking news relevant to the public’s safety and well-being, especially community-wide emergencies and hardships.
In his 2011 Poynter article about temporary paywall suspensions, Jeff Sonderman discusses how The New York Times decided to make storm coverage on Hurricane Irene exempt from the site’s existing paywall. Conversely, the Bloomsburg Press Enterprise decided not to disable its paywall when floods devasted Northeastern Pennsylvania, including the city of Bloomsburg.
“The underlying tension is that newspapers act simultaneously as businesses and as servants of the public’s interest. As for-profit enterprises, they have the right (the duty, even) to make money for shareholders or private owners. But most also claim to have a social compact, in which they safeguard the entire public interest and help their entire community shape and understand its shared values,” said Sonderman.